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Amazon says a wide release of its Astro home robot is finally ‘in the spotlight’

Amazon.com’s Astro robot, which was announced massively last year but later shipped in very low numbers, will be more widely available in the coming months, the company’s equipment manager said.

Dave Limp, senior vice president leading Amazon’s devices and services group, said Amazon is still working on issues related to Astro’s ability to map and navigate customers’ homes. For now, the robots are only available by invitation, and they’re still a rarity outside of Amazon.

But the bot’s general availability “isn’t a year away,” Limp said in an interview. He said it might be sooner but due to date prediction. “I think we’re close,” he said. “I think we have a bit of work to do. But it is in the spotlight.”

Although there is still a work in progress, Astro already has a lead role in Amazon’s new device event on Wednesday, when the company said it was looking to turn robots into security guards for businesses. This announcement is part of a series of product news, including the launch of a sleep tracking gadget and Kindle e-reader allows users to write on digital pages.

Amazon’s Ring division also announced a new pair of home security cameras and other updated devices. Ring’s Spotlight Cam Pro – the most significant new Ring hardware introduced at the event – will feature a radar-based camera to enable 3D motion detection and bird’s-eye view. These features were previously included in Ring’s high-end doorbells to give a better picture of their surroundings, but will now be more affordable.

Regardless of Astro’s fate, home robots are poised to be a bigger part of Amazon’s lineup. Company announced the plan in August to buy Roomba maker IRobot Corp for $1.65 billion. That deal still needs regulatory approval from governments around the world, but Limp told Bloomberg Television on Wednesday that he’s optimistic the deal is done.

At $1,000, rising to $1,450 after an introductory period, the Astro robot is likely to remain a more niche product than Amazon’s Kindles or Echo smart speakers. But Limp and his team have been discussing plans for a wider release this week, he said, and they just want to boost its navigational power before Amazon makes the bot available to all users. Astro can still get confused in rare room settings, such as areas with floor-to-ceiling glass near mirrors, he said.

Limp said that Amazon initially hoped to ship its first Astros to invited customers before the end of 2021. Supply chain constraints prevented that from happening until late January or February, he said.

Packing the Astro with sensors and four processors makes it powerful enough to reassure Amazon engineers that it won’t crash down the stairs. But that also makes the product vulnerable to supply shortages. “In many ways, we over-built the hardware there,” said Limp.

More broadly, supply chain constraints have eased after a difficult period, Limp said on Bloomberg Television. “I don’t think we’re over it yet,” he said, “but I can begin to see light at the end of the tunnel.”

Hundreds of thousands of people have requested offers to buy Astro, Limp said, adding that he’s not sure how many of those queries will translate into actual sales.

Early reviewers and some customers say the device, which looks a bit like a tablet on wheels attached to a cup holder, is charming but lacks must-have features. Limp said his teams are working to inject more personality into Astro’s answers to questions.

Limp said he was also surprised by the strong demand for the device from businesses. That’s why Amazon’s Ring division saw Astro’s potential as a security guard.

As part of a pilot project, Ring is expanding its security monitoring service to exploit Astro’s capabilities. The robot is capable of investigating alarms, observing the scene with its cameras, and notifying Ring-contracted security centers in cases where police need to be called. Ring plans to test the service in the coming months with a small group of businesses.

Amazon acquired Ring in 2018 and has turned the group into an important part of its hardware business. In addition to joining Astro, they are building more intelligence and capabilities into their security devices.

New radar technology will allow Ring’s Spotlight Cam Pro camera to better measure object distances and trigger alerts more accurately. That addresses complaints from some Ring owners, who have said current cameras and motion sensors could be setting false alarms.

The radar system will allow the camera to more accurately identify specific objects or tell if there are people in the frame. And the bird’s-eye view feature displays overhead images of movements captured by the Ring device.

Amazon will sell the battery-powered version of the Spotlight Cam Pro for $230, with the solar model going for $250. The Spotlight Cam Plus, a lower-end alternative that costs $200, is also getting a new design and will be available in the coming months, the company said. Ring’s latest panic button, a go-anywhere or wall-mounted device, is cheaper than the previous model. It will cost $30, down from $35.

Some of Amazon’s innovations can take a while to catch up – if at all. Ring announced an indoor drone two years ago, but it’s still only available in limited numbers.

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